Heroic in loss

We celebrate several heroes despite them being on the losing side.

Karna lost the war of the Mahabharata.

Hannibal Barca lost the Battle of Cama, and therefore, the Second Punic War.

Rani Lakshmibai did not win against the British. Nor did Bhagat Singh.

The Red Baron was eventually killed, and Germany eventually lost World War 1.

Che Guevara was executed by his enemies and was unsuccessful in spreading the communist revolution.

Milkha Singh, the Flying Sikh, did not win a medal at the 1960 Olympic games.

Yet, we remember all these people as heroes.

We talk about heroic deeds, not heroic results, for heroes are defined by their actions. Not by their results.

A hero is a person who acts in honorouable ways regardless of whether they win or lose. To act in heroic ways, the means are more important than the ends.

Aristotle’s middle path

Aristotle held that virtue lay at the golden mean between extremes and vices. Will Durant expounds this principle as well as any poet could.

Between cowardice and rashness is courage.
Between stinginess and extravagance is liberality.
Between sloth and greed is ambition.
Between humility and pride is modesty.
Between secrecy and loquacity, honesty.
Between moroseness and buffoonery, good humor.
Between quarrelsomeness and flattery, friendship.
Between Hamlet’s indecisiveness and Quixote’s impulsiveness is self-control.

Virtue is hard to discern because the opposite of vice is also vice. We ought to always be wary of swinging too far to one side or the other.

Good and bad

I recently strolled past a yew tree and noticed its bright red fruits. Curious, I plucked one of the berries and tasted its juice. Since the berry was was sweet and tasty, I ate the whole berry and moved on.

Given that the berry was sweet, I had assumed that it was harmless. However, I read up later that yew berries are deadly poisonous – especially the seed within. As few as three seeds, when chewed, can kill a person. I thanked my lucky stars that I merely ate 1 berry, swallowed the seed whole and am still alive as I type this.

What we perceive as good isn’t that which is inherently good, but that which brings us pleasure.

What we perceive as bad isn’t that which is inherently bad, but that which brings us pain.

But that which brings us pleasure isn’t necessarily good for us, such as sugar, flattery or yew berries.

And that which brings us pain isn’t necessarily bad for us, such as yoga, cold showers or a difficult math problem.

A virtuous life is one where we derive pleasure from that which is inherently good, and cultivate an aversion towards that which is inherently bad.

To be virtuous isn’t to default but to be deliberate.

Success actually

Our culture tells us we are successful if we

  • Are famous (celebrities, sportspersons, actors etc.)
  • Are extremely rich (worth several million dollars)
  • Lead a lavish lifestyle (Lambhorginis, Michellin Star meals, destination weddings)
  • Are powerful (CEOs, Managing Directors, Founders)
  • Graduate from famous colleges (Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge)
  • Do something groundbreaking (Innovators, Explorers, Pioneers)

We are actually successful if we merely

  • Have enough leisure to not keep hustling
  • Nurture a close circle of family and friends
  • Eat nutrious food, and exercise regularly
  • Cultivate habits that preserves our well-being
  • Have enough money to sustain our needs
  • Lean into life with generosity and a sense of wonder

The list below might seem like a terrible compromise. But it is startling how many people deemed successful by the one above, have glaring gaps in the one below.

Leading an ‘ordinary’ but virtuous life is worth celebrating, because it is much harder and more important than our culture leads us believe.

Status vs. virtue

A course of action can be both virtuous and give us status. It is worth teasing the two apart.

Status is always granted by other people – it is extrinsic. In the absence of others, there is no status to be earned. Virtue is intrinsic. A virtuous act is performed whether or not it is approved by the people around.

Status isn’t necessary moral. A rich or powerful, but unethical person can enjoy high status. Virtue is invariably moral. An act that is virtuous cannot be immoral.

Status is a zero-sum game. For some people to be high status, others have to be low status. Virtue is a positive sum game. An entire society can be virtuous.

Status is possessed – a person has status. Virtue is embodied – a person is virtuous.